Newly arrived Syrian refugees walk on the side of a road after crossing the border into Turkey on January 15, 2014 near Kilis
Newly arrived Syrian refugees walk on the side of a road after crossing the border into Turkey on January 15, 2014 near Kilis © Ozan Kose - AFP/File
Newly arrived Syrian refugees walk on the side of a road after crossing the border into Turkey on January 15, 2014 near Kilis
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Joseph Krauss, AFP
Last updated: January 18, 2014

Smuggler guides Syrians across perilous frontier

For a modest fee Ibrahim leads Syrians across the Turkish border, one of many services his organisation, the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front, provides to those in need.

On a recent day he led a line of taxis up a muddy road through olive groves toward Turkey's border with Syria, where dozens of Syrians clutching overstuffed suitcases and burlap sacks waited on the other side to get across.

Thousands have fled following an outbreak of clashes pitting Islamist and moderate rebels against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a feared Al-Qaeda affiliate with roots in the Iraq war.

The fighting has claimed an estimated 1,100 lives, and comes as the rebels are still battling forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Ibrahim, who asked that his last name not be used, belongs to Al-Nusra Front, which is also affiliated with Al-Qaeda but has pursued a very different strategy in Syria, seeking to build popular support by providing aid and other services.

"We are civilised," he says. "We don't have this archaic mentality."

He charges refugees about $15 to cross, less for those of more limited means.

"I am here to protect people from injustice and help them however I can," says Ibrahim, a soft-spoken man with a close-cropped beard.

"If people don't have a way to get to Turkey, are we supposed to leave them here to die?"

The Turkish government has an open-door policy towards the refugees, but those who have no passports must cross illegally, and in recent weeks many of the official checkpoints on the Syrian side have seen fierce clashes.

Since the fighting erupted with ISIL thousands have crossed every day, fleeing an increasingly brutal war in which the unfinished struggle to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad is just one of many fronts.

At an official crossing several kilometres (miles) to the east, Abu Omar walked across with his wife and five children.

Rebels from the Islamic Front and ISIL were battling for control of Jarabulus, the Syrian town on the other side of the border, and that a huge car bomb had exploded the day before, killing several people.

"It's very, very bad inside," he says.

In recent months ISIL militants, including jihadists from Iraq, Egypt and Tunisia, had banned smoking and made prayers compulsory, says Abu Omar.

And three months ago ISIL shot dead two men in a public execution.

"They were accused of stealing," Abu Omar's adolescent son chimes in.

'Beggars wherever we go'

Several kilometres to the west, vans pull over on a highway looking out across a scenic valley, the Syrian Kurdish village of Afrin visible in the distance.

A group of refugees is gathered at the border fence down in the bottom of a valley, where they have been stopped by Turkish soldiers, who will likely allow them to pass.

ISIL has laid siege to Afrin for days and residents are running low on food and fuel.

Abdelrahman left a week ago to seek work in Istanbul and has returned to retrieve his wife and children, hoping they will soon make their way up the hillside on the Turkish side of the border.

"I have a law degree from the university. Have you ever seen a lawyer dressed like this?" he says, gesturing to his dusty clothes and unkempt beard.

Three years into an uprising that was supposed to restore dignity to Syrians after decades of dictatorship, more than two million have fled the country and millions more have been driven into poverty.

And three years after protesters broke through a police state's wall of fear, Abdelrahman, like dozens of Syrians interviewed in Turkey, asks his full name not be printed for fear of retribution.

"I know a doctor in Syria who is selling diesel on the side of the road," he says. "I know a fellow lawyer who is selling vegetables. No one has any dignity."

When his wife and children arrive he will take them to Istanbul and seek work as a day labourer.

"I think about my children every night and I cry," he says. "We've all become beggars, no matter where we go."

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